As I write this post, almost every US backer of Slayers has their book, or will be receiving it in the next couple of days. Non-US backers are also starting to get their books, which is really great news, and more should be getting theirs in the next week or so. Honestly, this is the first I've had a sigh of relief during this whole thing. Seeing that each book I sent is at least processed and moving through the system is a huge weight off my shoulders, and now I just play the waiting game.
I wanted to do a post like this, a post mortem that is an honest tell-all of the process. It's going to just be a stream of consciousness sort of thing. So forgive the rambling. It's not going to cover how I designed the game, I've talked about that plenty in the past. This is to share with you my experience getting Slayers to Kickstarter, and running and fulfilling the campaign. Let's start at the beginning.
I decided to put Slayers on Kickstarter back in June, if memory serves correct. Maybe end of May. I was talking with Nevyn and Adam in the Brain Trust discord, coordinating when we were going to be posting our campaigns (so as not to step on one another's toes, one of many reasons to love the BT). Nevyn was a bit further away than Adam and I, and I think I was feeling impulsive (what's new), so I laid claim to the end of June so I could run the campaign through the month of July. With a date set, I announced it, which locked me in and held me accountable. Time to build a Kickstarter.
Building a KS
Slayers was my second Kickstarter. I ran one earlier this year as part of Zine Quest 2, and the process was relatively straightforward. Even though it was my first time, the stakes felt lower because it was a zine, and I had my best friend Mike helping out with layout.
So building a KS wasn't new, but building a good one was. I needed art and banners, for this to all look good. I had found my character artist prior to designing the campaign, Justin Benford, and so I had some art. Art makes or breaks a KS, so if I set up shop without anything to show off, it would have bombed.
My very talented friend Jordan Devenport, who designed the Slayers logo, helped me quickly make some sleek looking banners for the KS. Now I've got art, and banners, so I've avoided the giant wall of text. So far so good!
One other thing I wanted for the KS was something that really highlighted the asymmetry of Slayers. Adam Boyes, who I've done some neat design work with, had recently added GIFs to his itch page to make his games look even more slick. He gave me a crash course, and next thing you know, I'm making GIFs of the dice rolling mechanics for each class. I LOVE the idea! Some people weren't fans, but I think it's a cute and clever way of showing off what's special about this game.
Now I've got a KS built. The structure was largely borrowed from those that came before, with a huge shout out to Adam Vass on helping me get my KS into fighting shape. Time to pick a funding goal, and length of time for the campaign.
The funding goal was based entirely off recovering payment to artists who would be working on the book, layout, and the print run. I didn't include anything in the "budget" that was about paying me. I know, I know, some of you are shaking your head right now. I talk about money later on in this post. I don't regret it, but I understand that approach isn't for everyone. I set the campaign to last 30 days because I really really thought I was going to need it to hit $1500. Score, my first KS, hit $1000 after 2 weeks, so I figured I would double the length of the campaign to make it. Well, turns out that wasn't needed at all.
Running the Campaign
June 30th, 10 AM, campaign launches. 5 hours later, we're funded.
Huh, that went faster than I expected. Like, a lot faster. Now what? Well, I already had some stretch goals for more art lined up, so I have a little breathing room right? WRONG. Those get smashed during the first day. On top of that, lots of people want to get their hands on Score, because it was just announced as an ENnie nominee for the category of Best Rules.
So Day 1 recap: I add a new tier so people can get a copy of Score with their book, funded in hours, and then the stretch goals are handled.
How did it happen? Well, I was talking about Slayers A LOT on Twitter before the campaign, so I had a lot of people following the KS campaign before it launched. Couple that with the titanic support of the Brain Trust discord, and boom, you get instant funding. You all are amazing, and I'm still blown away by this.
Obviously I needed more stretch goals, right? That's what people do. At least that's what impulsive Spencer thought. But we'll get to that in a second. I had to sustain promoting a campaign that funded in 5 hours. I had 29 more days. This shit is draining. Self-promo is something I've become more comfortable with because of Chris Bissette, but doing it non-stop for a month takes its toll. I reached out, and managed to get on a couple of shows and podcasts. I had a lot of fun doing those, but I 100% should have been arranging those before the campaign even started.
I don't have some treasure trove of knowledge to pass on about marketing and promo. I used a few different methods. Constantly tweeting, running short ads on FB and Insta (those weren't worth it at all by the way). I think the quiet marketing techniques that Dee describes were especially helpful. One thing that really helped? Having big names in the indie TTRPG scene notice my game. Seriously, the John Harper bump is real. 3 days before the campaign ended, he quote retweeted a post of mine, and my funding jumped $2000 in about 1.5 hours. Unreal the kind of clout some folks have, and I feel really lucky to have gotten that attention.
Adding stretch goals seemed like the thing to do. More art, commissioning some amazing people to write things for the game. Oh and you know what else would be cool? Making this cute little paperback book into a hardcover premium product! You know what would be even cooler? Doing it as a "free" upgrade on everyone's book, instead of making a new hardcover tier!
The Hardcover Dilemma
I ran the numbers, how much more a hardcover book would cost compared to a paperback. The stretch goal funds would more than cover that price difference! So, why not just upgrade all the books? That will get people to back my game!
I mean, it probably did. Backing a game on KS, and paying $15 to get a hardcover book (not including shipping) is a really fucking good deal. Shipping was going to cost the same for international backers, because the book would weigh below the threshold that bumps it up (spoiler THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN). So it wasn't like I was going to need to ask people to increase their pledge to account for a new shipping price. Free hardcover upgrade for everyone!
I know now that the better/smarter thing to do would have been to create a new hardcover tier, that charges more for shipping and has a higher base price. I KNOW I KNOW. Now. Then, Spencer was impulsive and excited and desperate to make his KS numbers go up and up and up.
Here's where things go wrong for me. I'm going to jump forward in time. I did a lot of major revisions to the layout of the book because Mixam estimated the weight of the hardcover book at the page count and specifications I gave would weigh .4 lbs. It weighed over .5 when I got the sample print. What does that mean? Well, for US backers, it meant an increase in shipping cost on average of about ~$.50. Not huge, but definitely adds up when there are hundreds of them.
The non-US backers? Their shipping costs increased by about $10. Each. With about 150 non-US books being shipped, I'm suddenly in the hole $1500. Like, I'm just going to have to eat that cost with whatever KS funds are left over after I pay for printing, art, layout, and all that.
All because I was excited to make a killer book. And also Mixam's estimated weight sucked, but mostly me being impulsive. Did it hurt? Of course. But, I never went in the red with this campaign. And at the end of the day I made a really cool premium product. And this early in my "career" as a designer, this helps get my name out there, so that's what I think about that $1500. Hurts, but I can handle it.
The Final 48 Hours
Just want to say that the final 48 hour bump is REAL. I got this ridiculous wave of funds at the end of the campaign, in the last two days. It was really exciting to watch (because in the back of my head I'm thinking about how those funds are helping make up that $1500...). I crossed the finish line at $17,500, which is just unreal to me. Guess I better make the book.
Laying Out the Book
We're going to jump forward in time. The campaign was over, and the text was written. Prior to the campaign I had reached out to TTRPG twitter asking for recommendation for graphic designers who do rulebook layout. I got a lot of great recommendations, and ultimately landed on Francita Solo to do the layout for the book. She did and incredible job, and was a wonderful person to work with. Incredibly timely with her responses, and turned around work at a great pace.
The layout of the book you have in your hands (or will have soon), is largely Francita's design, at its core. But after getting a finalized version from her, I started tinkering. Tinkering turned into changing. And I changed a lot. This is by no means Francita's fault, but two things that I had decided after she had done her work.
I needed to hit a certain page count to get the book to weigh the right amount so I wouldn't get fucked on shipping costs. Hey, turns out that was a lie, so...fuck.
I wanted a cleaner design. At first the book had a bit more grunge to it, the monsters blocks and other text followed different looks. Which were all very good. In fact the blue border on the pages used to be blood red, but I changed it to blue to fit the cover art.
I rearranged a lot of stuff because that's just who I am. I like to mess with things, and once I started, I couldn't stop. The bones of the original layout are there, but I messed with the skin a lot. This analogy is gross, but works.
Anyway, I'm really happy with how the book looks. After weeks of tinkering on it, I think it looks really nice. I hope you agree! But my god, I have a huge amount of respect to folks who do graphic design from scratch. I can't imagine doing this with a blank page.
I wanted to get a lot of great people involved in the book. One of the decisions I made early one was to get multiple artists to do the art for the book. Justin did a terrific job with the Slayers class art, but I knew the book also needed monsters (we're hunting them after all), and then some stuff from the setting. I found Phil Stone who does incredible work with monsters. And them Madeleine Ember, who I was already a fan of from the Ember + Ash products, and especially her art on Richter.
When I told my graphic design friends (Mike and Jordan) that I was using multiple artists in the book, they...weren't thrilled at the idea. They thought it wouldn't fit, that there would be clashing styles. Which is true! Justin, Phil, and Madeleine all have totally different styles. But Mike and Jordan do graphic design for companies, which of course want to have a unified brand "style". Sure, some TTRPGs want that too, but it didn't fit what I imagined with Slayers. Slayers takes place in an infinite city, that is an amalgamation of different styles of tones. So shouldn't the art reflect that? I thought so, and after confirming with the BT discord that it wasn't a horrible idea, I used my trio of artists. They all were AMAZING to work with. Phil is a beast and turns around art at an incredible pace. Madeleine somehow took my vague descriptions of districts in The City and transformed them into beautiful digital paintings. HIRE THESE PEOPLE.
Art is cool, but I wanted other people to contribute their words. Nevyn Holmes had already created a cool class for Slayers on his own, so he was more than eager to contribute a Hunt to the book. Banana Chan was the other guest author. Honestly, that was a completely unexpected collaboration. Turns out we both were interviewed on the same show, and the host connected us! After chatting with Banana and reading her pitch, I knew she would be a perfect fit for the book. Nevyn and Banana were wonderful to work with. My only regret is that I ended up having to cut some of their work to fit in the book, because these are two really talented authors.
The book is done! Art and guest writing was submitted, I had tinkered with the layout for about 2 weeks, everything was set. I had decided to print with Mixam because I had used them a bunch for all of my zines, and they were always quick to get things done at a great quality. Rather than just hit print and order 800 books, I ordered a single copy of the book (costs $100 to do so btw), to see what it looks like. The first copy got lost...so they made another and overnight shipped it to me, which I'm really thankful for so I could stay on schedule for my fulfillment date. I'm glad I ordered the sample, because there were some layout things I hadn't considered when printing a book as opposed to a zine.
I made the changes, and also weighed the book. My heart dropped when it was more than .5 lbs. I had worked so hard to layout the book to the length it was because their estimates assumed me it would be less than that (factoring in shipping material it should have still be less than .5 lbs to ship to someone). That stung, and you now know the cost of that poor estimate. Either way, I pushed on, made the changes, and ordered 800 copies of Slayers.
They arrived on a pallet, over 20 boxes weighing over 400 lbs total, at my small apartment. Moving them all on my own was...not fun, but the adrenaline of getting the books fueled me. I got them into my apartment, basically losing all my floor space and confusing my puppy. Cracked open a copy...and it tore. Turns out fresh out the box books are fragile. This made shipping them a bit more tedious.
I didn't use a distribution company or anything like Backerkit because honestly I didn't think I would need it (remember when I thought it would take 30 days to hit $1500?). Shipping out 650 books by yourself isn't fun. Thankfully my brother was able to help pack some envelopes. But for the most part, over the course of a week I spent free time prepping books, getting them into bubble mailers, slapping a shipping label on them, and bringing them in waves to my local post office.
Quick note, bless my post office for being so chill about me bringing a shit ton of books to them over the course of a week. They were great. Support the USPS.
I mentioned earlier that the process was a little tedious. This is because I wanted to make sure the books were ok before packing them. So each book, I carefully cracked open to make sure they wouldn't tear when you got your book and excitedly opened up the cover. 650 books cracked open, THEN put in mailers and shipped out.
In the future I'll definitely want to use some sort of distribution resource. Also probably wont be making a hardcover book anytime soon. Carrying all those boxes to my car and the post office was less than fun.
It took me just about 1 week from the books arriving at my door to get them all in the mail off to my backers and the retailers who wanted to carry my stuff. I'm really proud of that turn around time.
That's most of the story, from start to finish. But we should talk about money, for transparency's sake.
I raised $17,500 on KS. They take a cut, so in my bank account I got about $15,750.
- 800 copies of Slayers, shipped to me costs $5400
- Shipping cost another ~$5500
Quick math, that puts us around $4850. I gotta pay my artists, graphic designers, and guest authors. I worked with the artists based on their rates, same with layout. Authors I decided to pay $0.25 per word, which is a shit ton more than the industry average. This is largely because they weren't writing lots of lots of pages of material, but also because I respect Nevyn and Banana and wanted them to get what I thought their time was worth. That all cost around $2000.
Oh, and I did another print run of Score because waaaaaay more people wanted it with their copy of Slayers, so that's another $300.
Now we're sitting around $2550 left over. Shipping materials (envelopes, printing labels, ink) were another ~250.
So, at the end of the day, what's my net? Around $2300 goes into my pocket. That's my fee for writing the game, coordinating the artists, shipping it all. 3 months of work on the KS alone, plus the ~1 year of work designing the game itself. 2300/3 is about $767 per month of work on the campaign. Enough for me to survive off of? Absolutely not. I won't be quitting my day job anytime soon.
BUT! Did I end up in the red? No! My goal from the very beginning was to at least break even. To make a really cool game, and also a great looking product, and get it into as many people's hands as I could. I think I accomplished that. The fact that I got any money at all for doing that is icing on the cake. I have a full-time job. I'm a psychology professor at a local university. My partner is secure in her work as well. Game design isn't going to put food on our table. But it is going to fill my heart.
And that's really all I want. To make cool shit and get it in people's hands. I 100% realize I am in a position of privilege to be able to say that. And I for sure wouldn't recommend following the steps I took if you're looking to do this and actually get paid what your time is worth.
Oh, and you know, you're not supposed to get attached to that KS money when it hits your account. It's already spent, so to speak. But boy did I get attached. Hitting the "buy" button on thousands of dollars of shipping labels was hard, until I got that idea settled in my head.
After the Party
When I released the digital version, I released the Slayers Creator Kit for free. It's a long document that gives you all the tools and guidelines (including templates) to make your own content for Slayers. I released Slayers under a CC 4.0 license, because I want people to be able to make things for Slayers without worrying they are stepping on my toes, and to be able to get paid for their hard work. I made a free class to show off what the Creator Kit could do, called the "Doctor", based on one of my favorite monsters from the book and a fantastic illustration by Phil Stone. In fact, I also started the Slayers Jam, which is an ongoing game jam on itch for people to show off their creations.
There's a podcast, Very Random Encounters, that is doing an actual play using Slayers, and that just absolutely makes my week every there is a new episode. I would love to hear about more people playing the game.
I also started a discord for Gila RPGs. It's pretty much a Slayers discord. It has been growing over the weeks, and I really love the small community we have there. Folks are great about encouraging one another, and giving great advice on running or creating things for the game.
So, what did I learn from all of this? First of all, weight estimates are just that, estimates. Don't treat them as gospel. Also, don't just randomly upgrade all the books in your campaign to hardcover assuming you've totally got this covered. You don't.
I mean, the real lesson is patience. I am generally an impulsive person. I made Corvid Court in two days because I got the idea of a crow themed crime game in my head and had to get it on the page. I decide to do print runs of my games in minutes, rather than taking the time to weigh options. The hardcover thing is a big lesson learned. Does it mean never do hardcover? Of course not! But if I took the time, I probably would have made hardcover a separate tier that people could change to, and help cover the increase in costs.
I survived this because I didn't do it alone. I had the Brain Trust discord constantly there to give me advice, or simply to pick me up. My creative friends lending me advice, and even their work, to help make Slayers amazing. All of you incredible fans who shouted out the game to the world, and helped it grow. My brother for doing the horribly boring job of stuffing bubble mailers with me. The post office for working with an independent artist and helping him even though they were overloaded. And of course, my partner Kate, who has always been by my side and encouraging me.
Future of Slayers
What does the future of Slayers look like? Busy! Slayers sure as shit isn't done. The first book, the core rulebook is done. But with Slayers Jam, we can see that there is an infinite number of things (classes, monsters, districts, etc.) that can be added to the game. In fact, I'm working on the first big official supplement: Dust. Dust is going to be a sourcebook full of locations, rumors, adventures, NPCs, new monsters, and new classes, all set in the district where Gunslingers get their guns.
And I've got a bunch more projects for Slayers rattling around in my brain, but I don't want to show my hand just yet.
So for now, read the book, hunt some monsters, enjoy the game. I really appreciate your support. And if you've made it all the way to the end of this, wow, you rock.
I'm going to unplug my brain from Slayers for a little bit, besides the occasional book order that hits my site. For now, I ask two last favors of you.
One, tell a friend about Slayers. Spread the word. Convince your friends who are entrenched in the belief that 5E (FIRE MIKE MEARLS) is the only want to fight monsters that they are wrong.
Two, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE REVIEW THE GAME ON ITCH. Itch reviews are super important for a game staying relevant. To make matters worse, a review that is less than 5 stars is essentially a bullet in the head of that game. So, if you like the game, I would love if you dropped a review over there, and then reach out to me and let me know what you think. Find me on twitter, or join our discord.
That's it for now. I'm going to sleep for a week, then get back to Dust. Thank again Slayers.